"Comics are words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures."—Harvey Pekar
What is a Comic Book really, but words with pictures? Why, the words could be about anything, as long as the pictures matched. They don't have to be about extraordinary beings in fantastic settings, about Superheroes or Funny Animals.
Why, really, they could just be about an ordinary man, with an ordinary life. They could even be autobiographical.
That's precisely what American Splendor was: the illustrated, sequential tales of ordinary, shlubby Cleveland file clerk Harvey Pekar, as told by ordinary, shlubby Cleveland file clerk Harvey Pekar himself, documenting his generally mundane life from 1976 to his death in 2010.
Due to the nature of the series, people from Harvey's life (such as his wife, Joyce and his foster daughter, Danielle) continually appear in the comics.
A film, American Splendor, was released in 2003 starring Paul Giamatti as Pekar. The film both dramatizes Pekar's life story, and vignettes from his comic books. The real life Pekar, his wife Joyce and Pekar's friend Toby Radloff appear as themselves in several on-the-set documentary segments throughout the movie.
See also Robert Crumb, a friend and fellow jazz aficionado of Harvey's, who drew several American Splendor stories (and yes, was even featured in a few as a character).
- Adaptational Attractiveness: In the story "A Marriage Album," Joyce is seen in a panel imagining the various ways Harvey is drawn in the comic, right before she meets him. Partially lampshaded in the movie, when Joyce talks to Harvey about it on the phone:
Joyce: You know, I don't really know what to expect. Sometimes you look like a younger Brando... but then the way Crumb draws you, you look... like a hairy ape, with all these wavy, stinky lines undulating off your body. I don't really know what to expect.
- All Jews Are Cheapskates: The story "Standing Behind Old Jewish Ladies in Supermarkets" is about the various incidents that Harvey (himself Jewish) observes of old Jewish ladies trying to get discounts. At the end of the story, he's astonished to encounter an old Jewish lady who actually gives back the extra change the cashier gave her by accident.
- And the Adventure Continues...: The final shot of the film is the cover for Harvey's book-of-the-making-of-the-film-of-the-book.
- Author Appeal / Genius Bonus: Harvey enjoyed jazz albums and was an avid collector (and in fact he wrote many jazz album reviews for several publications), so there were a LOT of references to jazz musicians and songs in the comic book.
- Contemplate Our Navels: Practically raised to an art form- stories feature Harvey doing this then letting it go, doing to cope with some event, doing it even though his life is too mundane to warrant it, doing it because his life is so mundane that there's not much else to do, and a dozen other variations.
- A Date with Rosie Palms: Harvey does this in one story as a way to mellow out and alleviate his loneliness. Except it doesn't help, and it's a squicky scene anyway (but thankfully we get a Discretion Shot).
- Death by Irony: Harvey was on antidepressants to make himself feel better. He died by accidentally overdosing on them.
- First Law of Tragicomedies: Okay, so Harvey's a gloomy guy anyway, but the movie is a lot lighter and funnier at the beginning when it juxtaposes the live action actors with comic illustrations, and the actors with the real life Harvey, Joyce, and Toby. Then the movie takes a turn for the dramatic right around the scene where a passerby recognizes Movie!Harvey as the funny guy from the Letterman show.
- For Halloween I Am Going as Myself: A non-supernatural example. The movie begins with Harvey as a child, trick-or-treating as himself in contrast with other kids dressing as superheroes. This is a fictional event invented by the screenwriters.
- Fourth Date Marriage: Joyce and Harvey, and they stayed married up to his death in 2010. In "A Marriage Album," Joyce talks about it:
Joyce: But it was just like being at a flea market--you see one thing you never expected to find there and it's so special you've gotta have it, even if it's going to take all your money and you don't know how you'll ever get it home.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Harvey. In the comics, he's moody quite a bit and doesn't suffer fools gladly. But he usually openly admits it, and he's really not a bad guy.
- Mandatory Motherhood: Harvey got a vasectomy at 35. Decades later, Harvey and Joyce became foster parents to Danielle.
- The Movie: Starring Paul Giamatti as Harvey, with Harvey Pekar and people from his life being interviewed and showing up in archival clips.
- N-Word Privileges: Harvey told of having been accused of anti-Semitism for stories like "Standing Behind Old Jewish Ladies in Supermarkets", despite being Jewish himself. In the same story, a black fan of Harvey's asks him about the way he portrays other black people; Harvey explains that he always asks if he can use their stories in his work, since most of the people he writes about work with him at his day job and doesn't want to alienate them.
- No Fourth Wall: Ohh so often. Quite a few comics have Harvey's avatar addressing the audience directly. Then there's the movie...
- Real Life Writes The Entire Comic Series
- Real Person Cameo: All the time. Especially in "Grubstreet, U.S.A." (where he meets Wallace Shawn), and definitely in "Our Movie Year," which was about the making of the American Splendor movie. And Robert Crumb is depicted in various comics too, of course.
- Slice of Life: Why, yes...
- Spiritual Successor: To the works of Jack Kerouac. In fact, in the forward to the first American Splendor collection, Robert Crumb mentions that Harvey is the type of person who wouldn't be out of place in a Kerouac novel.
- Underground Comics: Initially a self-published and distributed comic book. Later distributed by Dark Horse Comics, and later still Vertigo Comics, an imprint of DC Comics.
- Wall of Text: Quite a bit, though in American Splendor, the artwork itself isn't the focus--it helps frame the narrative, and it keeps the story going.
- White Void Room: Many comics just feature Harvey talking in front of a white background.